Methodism Today: Resurrected and Resurrecting

Daily Reflections on the Resurrection | North Thompson Ecumenical Shared  Ministry

Forget the pandemic for a moment and set aside you anxiety about gas bills. In five to ten years these struggles will no longer demand our attention, but this reality will:

  • Less people than ever in our society will be a part of a church.
  • Less young people than ever in our nation’s history will be a part of a congregation, enter a church building, or open a Bible.
  • Christians, if current trends continue, will be a minority population in our society by 2070.

We do not get to choose the time in which we live, but we do get to choose how we live in our time. If the Church is to be reimagined in this era, we must realise that a vision of the church precedes a vision for the church. Rather than consider the form or structure of a denomination, we are wise to recall the function of the church. We can begin by considering some of the hallmarks of the first disciples who followed risen Jesus Christ.  

The first disciples placed their trust in the power of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the crescendo of proclamation in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul. The first Christians understood that if Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected to new life, he really was the Messiah, Saviour, and Lord. They followed His way with this level of conviction in the resurrection.

Their actions were consistent with the kingdom of God Jesus said was breaking into the world. The experience of the resurrection changed them. Their ministry and behaviour was always in keeping with the kingdom of God present in their lives individually and as the church. 

The disciples whole life was first and foremost a spiritual life. Their life in Christ was not limited to one day of the week or a set of activities that made them feel good in the rest of their lives. The Holy Spirit led them to honour God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Their love of neighbour and self flowed out of their ongoing experience of God’s guidance from the time they awoke to the moment they entrusted God with their nightly rest.

The disciples had a deep concern for those who did not know Jesus. Throw them in jail because they talked about Jesus, and they converted the guard. Tell them if they talk about Jesus again bad things will happen, and they said “…we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) Evangelism, the ability to talk to others about Jesus, was not a program or spiritual gift. It was what they did because Jesus had changed their lives and they knew He could change others’ lives as well.

The first Christians healed the sick, made sure people had food, lived in communities where everyone had enough, and attended to those on the margin. They did what they sometimes did not want to do. This included outreach to the Gentile population, after the Holy Spirit told them that God now called such people “clean,” a rather significant and historic revision to Judaic law and tradition. Whether through acts of compassion or calls for justice, the early church offered God’s love, compassion, and power to those who were lonely, suffering, or in need. They loved people, even the ones who threw rocks at them.  

As Christianity declines in the United Kingdom, other theologies and ideologies will fill the void. The Methodists in the UK will become more like the Methodist Church on the continent of Africa, where Christians are distinct because they are in the religious minority. Being distinct is the opportunity before us. We already live in a time when the wisdom of Christ stands in remarkable contrast to the foolishness of the flawed ways our cultures tell people they will find security and happiness. The teaching of Christ and the foundational beliefs of our church make more sense now than ever because of the failure of leaders in society to offer people much other than division, dissension, and fear. A resurrected Methodist Church must offer people a unique, Christ-ordered way of life that is resurrecting to those its hopes to reach and an alternative community within the larger society, just as John Wesley envisioned.

Those first disciples discovered that resurrection was a new state of existence. It was not about working harder to be a little less dead, it was a complete new life. For our church to have new life, we will have to rethink how we form people in the Christian life. Accountable discipleship, once a hallmark of Methodism, must emerge afresh in this time. The more spiritual encouragement and functional accountability people experience, the more progress they make in their sanctification. Our task is to help people live distinctively Christian lives that are attractive to others because of the integrity and love they demonstrate. Prior to Constantine, the early church did this slowly. They were not interested in quick, emotional conversions. People had to commit to the completion of the catechesis. They learned and lived the way of Christ before they were made members of the church. 

There is no structural change that will bring the Methodist Church greater vitality. We can only find it as we seek the power of God and resurrect the function of church, live the resurrection way deeply, and offer Christ and his love and wisdom to the world. 

Grace and peace,

Alan.

Methodism Today: Dot-to-Dot.

World's largest connect-the-dots puzzle

As a child my maternal grandmother would join us for Sunday lunch and tea. I always looked forward to these times because she was my ‘Nana’ but also because she would bring a bar of Fry’s Chocolate Cream to share and a puzzle comic for me to do.

I particularly liked doing the dot-to-dot puzzles, where, if you connected them in the right order, the seemingly random dots on the page would reveal a picture of a car or ship or something.

In many ways the life and mission of the church is like a dot-to-dot puzzle. These ‘dots’ are the unchanging aspects of a churches life and work, like personal invitations to gatherings, breaking bread with a neighbour, singing praise to God, reading his word, offering the life of the world in prayer and offering a captivating message. For many years we have joined this dots together in a particular way to reveal a picture we call Church.

But what if you could join the dots of the puzzle together in a different way to reveal a different picture? If we connect these dots in the “right” order, we just might have an exciting, life-giving movement on our hands. 

Many churches are now quite familiar with a both/and reality, especially with worship. Churches stream worship online while also having people in the pews. On any given Sunday you will find an offering plate but many church members now give online. (Some churches even have contactless card readers to accept donations!) The both/and world is becoming quite familiar, but often overlooked is the responsibility to recognise that both/and is not just about church logistics. Living into this tension elicits a pastoral response. Many are feeling left behind with the quickly changing technological landscape, and with this dramatic change there is grief, those who were on the ‘offertory rota’ no longer have a role to fulfil.

We must hold in tension both the grief and excitement of this new augmented landscape. Many for the first time feel like the church is listening to them. Creating discord servers, developing space in the metaverse, and investing in digital currencies as a means through which the church is serving a new generation, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of those currently in our communities. It’s not about the technology, but it is about the connection (or lack thereof) technologies affords.  As of yet there isn’t an app on the market that can heal a hurting soul who feels forgotten. We must connect the dots between what technology can do and how technology makes us feel. 

In the church there is often a resistance to change and those who resist change will speak about ‘change for changes sake’. I must admit I agree that change for changes sake is not always the best way forward. If change comes it must be adaptive change, joining the dots in a different way to produce a better not just a new picture.

Twenty or so years ago there was a church that had experienced their “golden” years: substantial growth, effective mission, expansion, and influential community leadership. The minister who led during this time of abundance eventually came to the end of their time in the circuit and was stationed elsewhere, and with his successor came great strife. The following years offered division, antagonism, and depending on who you ask, great trauma. Since this shake-up, the congregation seemed to find some reason or another to ask the minister to start packing every four to five years. Why? With each new appointment the next minister was being asked, explicitly or quietly in the hallways in between meetings, to recapture the past. The incoming minister’s vision was never enough. It never could be because repeating the past is impossible. It is not an altogether bad thing to desire the best practices of a fruitful time. Connect-the-dots puzzles are a tried and true children’s exercise, but if you’re hoping to find a connect-the-dots book within walking distance from your home at a corner news shop your walk will probably end in disappointment.  

Congregations tempted to reclaim past mission and vision are in a particularly difficult context today. As I mentioned in my previous article, we are all running the third great Covid marathon; “Nostalgic Scarcity,” the desire to reclaim the past through already limited resources. Nostalgic Scarcity might be an unfamiliar phrase, but “let’s get ‘back to,’” and “This is how we used to do it,” I’m sure will resonate in many churches with a slight traumatic tremor.

Churches who want to ‘get back to’ are stifling this new environment to explore the realities of mission and church today, both physically and digitally. Some members will even go to the extent of removing the dots to prevent a new pattern being formed, the “if you do this I will resign from the church” brigade. Enshrining the past is not a bad thing, but it is the job of museums, not the calling of churches. 

Adaptive change will be waiting for us at the Covid marathon finish line, and with adaptive change there is always a cost. The cost is often loss. Several church members of that church left when the new ministers failed to invest in creating a “get back to” environment; however it seems that the congregation has never been healthier. The worshiping congregation is certainly slimmer, but also more nimble, more missionally engaged, and frankly happy. We must connect the dots between what will bring us into a more fruitful future with the recognition that not everything/one will join us on that journey. 

The good news is that the church is not being called to be innovative, witty or clever. We simply need to be where the people are. We need to connect the dots between the excitement of innovation with the sorrow of grief. We need to connect the dots between the fruitfulness of moving into the future with the loss from adaptive change. We need to connect the dots between innovative technology and the people the technology should serve. When we reconnect the dots of our churches life we will see the shape of a cross. It may have been hard to see at first in the midst of exhaustion and rapid change, but it is our faith that it is there. So, how are you being called to reconnect the dots of your churches life?

Grace and peace to you, Alan.

Being an Attention Seeker-a sermon preached at Kingsbury

Jesus told them a parable to this effect. They ought always to pray and not lose heart. Persist don’t give up. Continue to wrestle with the situation and with God. That is the message of both scriptural passages today.

It’s unusual for the gospel writer to give the meaning of the parable at the outset but perhaps he felt that his readers needed a little help in coming to an understanding of Jesus’ message. Perhaps in our irreligious age we ought to step back and ask a more fundamental question> namely what is prayer. How should we understand it?

In the end prayer is about waiting on God-giving him our full attention.  The orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God-that is prayer. God we believe is infinitely loving and cares for each one of us so we need to pay attention to him and put ourselves in his way.

The French philosopher and writer Simone Weil who was also a High School teacher believed that the study of mathematics or difficult foreign languages like Greek developed the power of attention in students. Consequently such studies were not only helpful to students in their academic and intellectual development but also in their prayer life. This seems odd at first but I’m sure she was on to something. These days’ people find it hard to pay attention to anything for any length of time and they crave instant amusement and complain constantly that they are bored. Perhaps you are bored with me now.

If prayer is to be understood as giving our attention to God we might also consider what prayer is not.

Prayer is not magic or the casting of spells. It’s not about uttering words or phrases to ensure particular outcomes at critical moments. Of course familiar words or phrases uttered at critical moments of crisis can be a comfort to us and have their value but at best they are only a key or a pin number to open up the heart so that it gives its full attention to God.

A famous story told by a French religious figure-obviously it’s their day today-concerns the famous priest known to history as the Cure d’Ars. Walking through his church one day he saw a man kneeling in silence before figure of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Time passed and he became used to seeing the man kneeling day after day before the cross. So he asked him about how he was and what he was doing. He replied; I looks at him and he looks at me and we are happy together. That’s as good an account of prayer as you will find.

Prayer then is giving attention to God. Getting in God’s way and letting God get in our way.

That’s my first point perhaps the key point. The second thing to say is that prayer has a number of aspects:-

Praise: We need always to be praising God for who he is and what he is doing.

Confession: Giving attention to God also means attending to our sins and shortcomings which prevent us from making a full engagement with him.

Thanksgiving-we should always be giving thanks to God for his love and care and his ongoing engagement with us.

Intercession-in which we ask for things. But what things?

You will note, I hope, that when I come here I try and make space in the order of worship for each of these elements. The choice of hymns should also follow this pattern.

All these elements of prayer are needed if we are to have a serious engagement with God who loves us. If some elements are missing we are just left wish wishing and hoping which leaves us feeling disappointed when our wishes don’t come to pass. Always we need to get real-real about ourselves and real about God.

Coming to Church Sunday by Sunday we follow this pattern and this provides us with a template for our own private devotions.

What then thirdly is the use of praying?-to quote the title of a famous book by a Methodist author.

Prayer is good for us because it is the gateway to a holier life and a holy life is a happy life. Holiness and happiness are linked. Prayer is a means to happiness. That’s useful!

Prayer changes things. Not that prayer changes God rather it changes us. Because it changes us it opens up new spaces for God to act in the world – a world so often gripped in a kind of unholy necessity. Prayer changes the world because it changes what is possible for God and for God’s people who act in his name.

When people say, especially in committees: oh but we must be realistic I feel as perhaps you do too the grip of a kind of iron law of necessity. Realistic – well yes- but whose realism are we talking about-our reality or God’s reality. God leads us in prayer to enlarge our ideas about what is realistic in his name.

That’s very useful.

Faced with injustice in the world and with suffering and anguish close to home we must not give up. The cynicism that disguises itself as realism is too easy. Today my diary tells me that it is Freedom Sunday and next week is One World Week. It would be easy to feel cynical and detached in the face of increasing discrimination violence and oppression among the peoples of the world. What can we do? We can call upon God and place ourselves at his disposal. Above all we must persist in prayer as the gospel tells us to do. Be assured says Jesus God will vindicate us speedily.

The key theme in both our Bible readings this morning is struggle. Persistence in prayer as Jesus commends it in his parable and Jacob wrestling with the mysterious “man”. Who is this man? Could it be God? Charles Wesley seemed to think so.

Art thou the man who died for me

The secret of they love unfold

Wrestling I will not let thee go

Till I thy name and nature know.

The struggle you see. To know God and to know his purpose for us through prayer.

But in this struggle we have two great allies:

The Bible in which we learn who God is and how he acts and the Church Christ’s body here on earth present with us in his people and in the signs he gives us most notably the Holy Communion which we are about to celebrate with him, for him and for the world.

You know we did a good thing coming here today. Congratulations to us all for coming together to know God, to seek his will and to enjoy him forever.

Be assured he will vindicate us speedily.

Methodism Today: Where Worlds Collide

Two planets colliding: one short, but beautiful simulation

Like many around the world I watched with interest the final moments of the NASA Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) program, when on 26th September the DART rocket was intentionally crashed into Dimorphos, the minor planet-moon of the asteroid Didymos. This was a test to see if humanity could change the direction of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) thereby defending earth against an asteroid collision. If you want to know why ask a dinosaur!

Interesting you may say but what has this to do with church life? Well, personally speaking, at times mission feels trying to knock an asteroid on a permeant orbit in a different direction.

Post Covid we are emerging into a very different world where the church is being pushed in many different directions. In good Methodist style there three areas I want to consider and these can be further divided into three different directions.

Firstly we are the fulcrum of three ‘ages’. The industrial age, the information age and the augmented age.

Many church members are part of the industrial age. Industrial age members see church as bricks and mortar, worship is about attendance. Information is physical in the Newsletter and the pew-sheet.

There are fewer members in the information age but they feel as much apart of their church as industrial age members. Church is about community, worship is streaming and information comes through social media or e.mail. They may attend church occasionally but are happy to participate online, they opt out of receiving a physical church newsletter.

The smallest group, perhaps because they are the newest are those of the Augmented age. Although we do not know they are the smallest group because they aren’t counted in the same way as other groups. They have avatars, usernames, and gamer tags. These people put down their phones down because wearable technology is becoming its own force. They don’t register their attendance at all. They don’t have to because Augmented Age locations have geofences and register their presence automatically. Where as the citizens in the Information Age go to the internet. For the citizens of the Augmented Age, the internet comes to them.

The challenge for the church is all three ages coexist so how do we mission to them. If you only count those in church on a Sunday morning as attending you fail to register those who follow on social media. If you don’t produce a physical magazine many will feel forgotten. If this wasn’t difficult to navigate we have to remember that we are still living with a global pandemic.

Tackling a pandemic has been described as a marathon and not a sprint. In fact we are running three marathons.

The first Marathon was the one of traumatic innovation. Suddenly every where shuts down we all have to wear masks as of yet there is no treatment no vaccine. Even the church (building) is closed. There is great trauma in this first covid marathon, life is like building a house whilst trying to live in it.

We asked questions of the church we have never had to considered. What does it mean to be “present” with one another while being physically separated? How far does the Spirit stretch when blessing communion elements? Is online worship viable? The good news is that this first marathon has come to a relative conclusion for many. Not for all. There still exists great trauma and sadness from what Covid stole. Friends and family who exist now only in our memory and the eternal heart of God. Missed birthdays and other family and community milestones. This marathon has lasting effects, but on the whole, this race has been run.

As our churches began to reopen we faced a second marathon, that of spiritual exhaustion.

Daily life has never been more exhausting in our lifetime, especially for families with school-aged children. This exhaustion has again led to people asking important questions. People began to seriously consider if they are in the right occupation, location, relationship, and faith community. In-person worship attendance is returning much more slowly than many imagined because it’s taking longer to recover from the week’s activities. It also is revealing that worship for many people was an additional “activity” rather than a lived rhythmic reality of everyday life.

As we reflect on the new reality of church life, post-Covid we are just now beginning to see a third (and final?) covid marathon beginning. That of nostalgic scarcity.

As we think about the future life and direction of the church many people will be scared that there isn’t ‘enough’ of church to risk with speculative programs and missions. And what capital we have in church we want to invest in getting back what we once had. I can’t blame people for wanting to reclaim what it felt like before all the craziness, but there are some aspects of Church life that won’t make it out of Covid. So, let us celebrate and morn and move on.

It would be one thing if these were consecutive races, but they aren’t. Many churches are running all three at the same time, and we wonder why our tempers are short and there is a great resignation happening across the board. 

Now if you have managed to stay with me so far, well done. I don’t want to end on focussing on our challenges without offering a way forward.

Moving forward, either getting a degree, developing a new hobby, or even working through grief, was more or less defined by a paradigm or pathway. First do this, then when that is completed, do that. It was systematic, planned, and expected. The trouble is that Covid has gummed up the works and we find things have ground to a halt.

So if there is no systematic pathway forward for the church we must look for other ways. Another way is to develop a new eco-system for the church to exist in.

Youtube worship and Zoom Bible Study. All seems to be moving in the right direction again…until there seems to be little reason only to study remotely, or there seems to be little reason exclusively to ever go to the church again. The ecosystem begins to break down. The waste within the system becomes unpalatable, and the seamless give and take necessary for a thriving ecosystem only produces bitterness and frustration. So we are forced to re-examine Jesus call of the first disciples and abide.

To abide with each other and with Jesus. We neither try to maintain a pathway or fine-tune an ecosystem. Moving forward becomes compassionately personal. Pathways and ecosystems have work or production at its centre, but Jesus’ “abide” model of moving forward is a people first movement. It gives rise to a decentralised church and autonomous organisations where church members can just be. Where thy are not defined by levels of attendance or roles fulfilled or tasks completed. To abide is to understand that we are not perfect and we are all a work-in-progress. 

What is the point of all my rambling? The nine areas of church life I have briefly discussed need to come together, not like planets crashing it each other, which often happens in the life of the church but like the intersecting circles of a Venn Diagram At its elusive centre is an industrial, informational, and augmented space of traumatic improvisation, spiritual exhaustion, and nostalgic scarcity, moving us from the familiar pathways into an ecosystem that is begging for us to simply abide with one another.  So, take a deep breath, give yourself a break, and know that you are not alone.

God bless,

Alan.

All Good Gifts Around Us

Harvest Festival – Origins, facts and customs » Lockie Envelopes

Autumn is upon us and we enter the season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness, – which is romantic for cold and damp! It is also the season of the Harvest Festival.

Despite being an urbanised society we still like to decorate our churches once a year as if we lived in a victorian country village. However I have noticed over the years our harvest giving has changed. Long gone are the giant marrows and 6ft long leeks, now we want long life milk and packets of rice and pasta that can be used by the local food bank. So what does a Harvest Celebration have to say about God and about us today.

In our world of 24 hour supermarkets, with shelves bursting with countless prepackaged forms of wheat, barley and their gluten free equivalents, with multiple forms of Makuna honey and chilli infused olive oil, it can be easy to take food for granted. Harvest time is a great opportunity for us to recall and celebrate together the origins of these good gifts. To express our gratitude for the land and the people who produce them and thank God from whom they all spring.

However the work of Food Banks and Food Pantries remind us of a different world of ‘food’ in our country at the moment. We see families in food crisis and a hidden world of hunger in a ‘land of plenty’.

Every day there are people who experience the wilderness (of food poverty) and of slavery (to circumstances beyond their control) is both real and raw. Yet in the midst of the frustrations of the current situation these is still opportunity to recognise and appreciate afresh our dependence on God’s provision. Whether it is the gifts of food from business or individuals or time and prayer from our community we see a wonderful expression of God’s care for those experiencing hard times.

It can be tempting to view charity donations as a one-way transaction from donor to recipient, but the reality is much more complex. In one sense it reflects our utterly dependent status before God, both as giver and receiver. At Harvest time we remember that the ability to grow, transport, process and purchase even the very food itself is ultimately a gift from Him. Consequently we can learn a lot from the Foodbank clients about heartfelt gratitude and praise.

In true harvest thanksgiving God warns against trying to draw distinctions between circumstantial and self-inflicted poverty. Instead he invites us to remember the true source of our (fragile) wealth and our (transitory) ability to produce it – Himself. 

Moreover, in celebration, we are encouraged to give thanks for the ultimate gift they foreshadow: the rich, undeserved, unearned, extravagant grace offers to us all through Christ.

The words of Deuteronomy remind us that God’s gifts of Harvest are ultimately not about food but about wholeness and total wellbeing.

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.

Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. Deuteronomy 8:7-10

The land of plenty he provides is a confirmation of His unswerving faithfulness to His people. The Land of plenty provides community, security, and home. It looks forward to time when He will ultimately dwell amongst us.

Grace and peace to you in this Harvest season,

Alan.

Keep on Growing.

21,843 Plant Growing Through Crack Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free  Images - iStock

Usually at this time of year I am wishing everyone a ‘Happy Methodist New Year!’. This year I feel like saying ‘Welcome to a brave new world?’

The first of September always sees a change in Methodism with ministers starting their new appointment’s across the connexion. In our circuit we will be welcoming Rev Nick Jones as our titular Superintendent Minister and the Rev Novette Hedley as our District Chair.

However there will be a major difference this year and for the following year in that Rev Nick will not be resident in the circuit.

This will mean that the way the circuit operates will be very different. Already our church stewards will have noticed this as they wrestle with the increased number of Local Arrangements each church is given on the current plan. No doubt other issues will arise as we live in this new reality and we will deal with them as they arise.

I think part of the problem is that Methodism has changed very little over the last forty or so years so when faced with necessary change of our current situation we seem unable to cope. So what do we do?

As Methodists we often look to our founder John Wesley. John was born into a high tory church family he was given a traditional theological education at Lincoln College, Oxford. And entered the Church of England as rather priggish and vain young curate. He then met the real world and struggled to cope. However with the influence of the Moravian Brethren and his friend and evangelist Rev George Whitfield he began to change and continued to change even after his conversion experience at the Aldersgate Meeting House.

John Wesley described himself when he wrote in his journal in the spring of 1739 in response to George Whitfield’s field-preaching: 

            I was “so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.” (Journal & Diaries,18:612) 

John Wesley’s remarks remind me of present-day mainline Protestants, particularly some Methodists. Have we become similarly preoccupied with decency and order over and against God’s ministry of salvation? Rather than a tenacious maintenance of decency and order—where are we called to practice holy tenacity participating in God’s redemption?

Holy Tenacity

Holy Tenacity is the kind of inquiry, embrace, and sharing of the gospel we find in the church of the New Testament, particularly Acts of the Apostles, Paul-meets-Lydia kind of way. (Acts 16:11-15.) Holy tenacity embodies God’s redeeming love for all by reflecting the light and holiness of God’s love in authentic sacred relationships that offer glimpses of the joy and justice of God’s reign.  Jesus sets the ultimate example of holy tenacity particularly in his teaching that embodies Scripture’s salvation narrative.  

For me, Holy Tenacity describes God’s work in us to courageously and persistently respond to the Holy Spirit’s compelling us to share God’s relentless love in Jesus Christ in spite of expectations of appropriate Christian, or “churchy,” behaviour.

One aspect of holy tenacity is seeing God at work in our world and in us wherever we are. We need to see God at work in or lives and community. No matter how sad, angry, guilty, or grumpy, we are feeling we need to speak about God’s work of love in our lives and in the world. 

Love Well

Implicit in John Wesley’s words about tenacity and ministry is a central question about how to love well.  We are called by the God, in both Old and New Testaments, to love all of His/Her creation, those with and without power. We are called to love the unloved and the unlovable, even Judas.

Through stories, poetry, and parables we learn about God’s relationship with humanity and creation. I must admit I shudder when the Bible is described as a rule book, or a reference manual. The Bible is the narrative of God’s salvation for all creation. This does not mean there are not difficulties, challenges, and difficult expectations as we read this divinely inspired but very human composition. The Bible is ultimately about God’s unrelenting love and inexhaustible pursuit of you and me.

Churches, no matter how small or large, practice holy tenacity when they embody God’s love. This can include random acts of kindness. Paying for someone’s shopping at the supermarket. Giving a bottle of water to someone in need. Not charging for coffee at a church coffee morning. These are pleasantly welcome gestures. However, it is the truly countercultural Christianity of repentance and forgiveness that really changes the world.  

This counter cultural church is seen even before the birth of Jesus in Mary’s Magnificat. In the context of Jesus Christ’s nativity, we discovered how practicing holy tenacity extends into a world turned upside down by God’s grace. Reading the Magnificat we discovered how to lament the persistent oppression of systemic poverty and exploitation and challenge the exploitative power of the rich. It is in our mutual listening to the Gospel and tenaciously loving one another that we find ourselves working together with the Holy Spirit to release victims and victimisers from the oppressive systems of today’s culture and the dead weight of our history. We then participate in God’s redemption and the changing of the world.  

Whether in or beyond church buildings, God’s Holy Spirit is moving in and among us inspiring holy tenacity and challenging us to love well. To what tenacious holiness are we and our church being called to this Methodist year?

Grace and peace

Alan.

This Way Out

Hedge maze - Wikipedia

How do you get through a maze? Well there are two ways, either you form a strategy and work your way out or you jump out.

Yes I know the second option sounds ridiculous but bear with me.

As the Sutton Park Circuit we are facing a difficult few years ahed, we could be said to be in a maze with many options but also numerous dead ends. So what do we do? The simple answer is to produce a plan but there is another way.

Rather than planing our way through the maze of challenges we think our way through?

In His book Strategic Thinking, Thomas Bandy writes; “The essence of strategic thinking is to shoot an arrow straight into the heart of the community. It is about simultaneous church growth and community development. That arrow is a straight line from the Heart Beat of the faith community—toward the Heart Burst of the surrounding community, guided by the Heart Song of God’s unique love.”

Strategic thinking sheds the deadweight of unproductive plans, avoids the pitfalls of imposed agendas, and overcomes the roadblocks of cost and stress.

The Heart Beat of the church is the core values and beliefs of the church community, the faithful, discipleship between church members and God. The Heart Burst of the church is the urgent desire to reach the often diverse community around us. The Heart Song of the church is our experience of God and awareness of His calling on our lives.

The focus of strategic thinking is on vision and people, rather than programs and finances. So long as the church is guided by the vision, stays within boundaries that the vision sets, then they do not need endless meetings to asses whether the plan is succeeding . The church only needs to come together to address problems they can- not seem to resolve themselves, recommendation to terminate irrelevant programmes, and to brainstorm big ideas to grow the church and bless the community.

Strategic thinking connects church identity and vision with congregational creativity . It begins with trust and ends with action. Along the way, it strives to understand our community, discern God’s will for the future of both church and community, and evaluate progress so far.

Too often we hear church leaders complain about what they call the “Tyranny of the Urgent.” They say that they are unable to find the time or energy to set priorities, consider new ideas, or pray for renewed vision—because they are too busy attending meetings, sustaining struggling programs, managing conflict, and running the institution. This is not the tyranny of the urgent but the tyranny of the trivial. Strategic thinking is the art of discerning the difference between the really urgent and the truly trivial, and the courage to do the first and delegate the second.

When churches are driven by urgency rather than by triviality, the church grows and the community is loved. When churches are driven by triviality the church declines and the community is ignored. This means that many members understand “faithfulness” backward, they believe we are called to be faithful to the past model of church and mission when we are really called to be faithful to the God of the future. The problem is that faithfulness to the God of the future is much harder than a faithfulness to the past.

The essence of strategic planning is to build and sustain the institutional church. But the essence of strategic thinking is to build and expand the kingdom of God. The former concentrates on activities, property, and money. The latter concentrates on leadership, priorities, discipleship, and working with others. 

Strategic thinking requires the reframing of the questions we ask of our selves.

Strategic PlanningStrategic Thinking
Who is in Charge?How much do we trust God?
What do we compromise?How passionate are we about the vision?
What do the members want?What does God want?
What is the plan?What are the priorities?
What tasks should we do?What are the boundaries of our mission?
Will we preserve harmony?Will we grow?
Will we attract new members?Will we change our world?
Will we survive?Will we succeed?

Strategic thinking is really about critical momentum, not critical mass. Small congregations can have great momentum into their community where larger ones can often become lethargic and mistake numerical success as missional success.

The way of strategic thinking is remarkably humble. It is humble before the public: listening first and speaking last; observing before acting. It is humble before God: praying first and acting later; slaying rather than preserving sacred cows.

The Sutton Park circuit has to some degree embarked upon a the path of Strategic Thinking with its ‘Living and Growing God’s Kingdom’ Vision and the development of Mission Centres and Hub Church model. Sadly the Covid epidemic and Lockdowns has derailed this somewhat, but with determination I believe we can get back on track and use the challenges we are facing as a spur to engage in more strategic thinking for the future.

Grace and peace,

Alan.

Bigger Barns or Riches before God

Luke 12:13-21 and Colossians 3: 1-11

Sometimes I find myself reading the Bible and I reflect as I read it that I couldn’t possibly say this in Church. The message seems so contrary to conventional thinking or the wisdom of the west that it might pose a difficulty for the congregation so that it might be better to drop it or change the subject. And then I do a double take and I realize that I am reading it in church. Gosh! I say to myself. Today’s gospel from Luke 12 is just like that-a shock. Conventional ways of thinking are being turned upside down. But a lot of Jesus teaching is like this-paradoxical, strange and profoundly counter-cultural. And yet you know the Christianity does indeed proclaim an alternative society-we call it the kingdom of God.

The parable is concerned to teach about property, money and economic growth. Jesus has a lot to say about these things. Money can scarcely be spoken of in Christian contexts without embarrassment and yet Jesus has far more to say about money than about prayer which was the topic for discussion last week. After all Jesus will say in next week’s gospel where your treasure is there will your heart be also. And where is our treasure; in the bank, in the pension pot, in the equity growth plan or in stocks, shares, units or bonds. So when Jesus speaks it’s not always easy to understand him or rather we’d rather not understand him.

Reading this parable compels one to ask oneself some killer questions. Where do I find myself in all of this? Does this story hold up a mirror to our society and indeed myself? And what are these riches before God of which Jesus speaks? What in short does it show us?

The character at the heart of the parable is described as a fool. Wherein lies his folly? At one level he sounds quite sensible building bigger barns, accumulating reserves and making provision for the future. Folly! It sounds quite wise and prudent at least initially.

Folly takes two forms here.

First: The man.  Listen to his voice. He’s wholly wrapped up in himself. He’s talking to himself. The other day I was browsing the Amazon web site and I saw this advert for notebooks each one with a humorous cover. One in particular caught my attention. It read: “Of course I talk to myself. Sometimes I need expert advice.

The way of Jesus is not the way of self. We are called, to reject hedonistic individualism and look outwards in the name of love and mercy. The way of Jesus is the call to love others and find fulfiment that way. It’s not a manifesto commitment establishing our entitlement to be loved ourselves.

The fool in the parable is looking inwards and his self-love is fuelled by greed and avarice. Covetousness- explicitly denounced in the letter to the Colossians. No mention of his employees who will actually do the work of building the barns. It’s all about him.

Folly it may be but we should not underestimate the popularity of this man’s folly to the modern mind. Listen to the politicians who want your votes. Bigger barns they promise you, lower taxes and more economic growth. That’s how they think they can get votes including yours.

So first the folly of the man and now secondly the folly of misreading the reality of the situation as he understands it and Jesus re-interprets it. For Jesus suggests a re-interpretation of reality. Get real you might die in the night! What then will be the status of your ambitious plans?

We might add some additional considerations. Inflation could destroy your pension pot, civil unrest could upset your business plan, climate change could and probably will destroy everyone’s plans, and fraud is an ever present reality. Bigger barns may no longer be needed in an age of just in time inventories and containerisation etc., etc. No doubt you can think of other considerations. Get real is a good message. But reality is stranger than it used to be but be of good cheer Jesus is the new reality.

Then thirdly –those riches before God. What are they? God is the ultimate giver. He gave us life and everything that enables life. So to have riches before God is an invitation to draw close to him and share his life of giving. To give and not to get. To live selflessly rejecting superfluous stuff of which the greedy can never have enough.

Here is a story from Russian Orthodoxy – a famous one. They could do with some good publicity at the moment.

Once upon a time there was a woman and she was wicked as can be and she died. The devils took one look at her and threw her into a lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood by thinking: What good deed of hers can I remember to tell God.

Then the angel remembered and said to God. Once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman.

And God answered: “Now take that same onion and hold it out to her  in the lake, et her take hold of it and pull and if you can pull her out of the lake she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks then she can stay where she is.

The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. Here, woman the angel said, take hold of it and I’ll pull.

And the angel began pulling carefully and had almost pulled her all the way out when others in the lake saw her being pulled out and they all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was as wicked as wicked can be and she began to kick them with her feet. It’s me who is being pulled out. It’s my onion not yours.

No sooner had she said it than the onion broke and the woman fell back into the lake and was lost.

And the angel wept and went away.

Riches from God are what you can give not what you’ve got.

What then must we do? We must remember. After all that’s why we come to Church, to remember, to get our bearings and to chart the way forward.

All things come from God not from our skills still less from our sense of entitlements. The ultimate source, measure and guarantor of our good life is not our wealth but God’s goodness. Tuning into this will help us address the environmental crisis because the roots of that crisis lie in our refusal to see nothing and no one above our own desires.

But be of good cheer God is with us and he delights to welcome us home and restore us to our right mind. Congratulations to each and every one of us for coming today to help us all to remember this. Such active remembrance constitutes in large measure what it is to be a Christian and a Methodist is a Christian in earnest.

Endings and Beginnings.

the end is nigh | The End is Nigh sandwich board near the en… | Flickr

What kind of book reader are you? Do you start at page one and read to the end or are you tempted to skip to the last page to see ‘who done it’?!

I would argue that if you are the latter then you are a good christian; let me explain further.

I start with another question – What is Christian about the church?

The reason I ask this is that faced with the malaise that afflicts many of our congregations and churches, we have turned uncritically to secular business and leadership literature desperately searching for quick fixes and a one-size-fits-all technique. As a result, we have found ourselves swirling in intra-Christian polemics: some leaders loudly commending the latest books on effective leadership, with others equally loudly claiming that Christians are called to be faithful and prophetic rather than selling out to popular notions of success.

The polemics are tearing us apart rather than building up the Body. Adopting an either-or position will not equip our churches to act as incubators of transformative life and cultivators of thriving communities. 

So is there something distinctively Christian about the Church?

Yes: The end.

Don’t stop reading!, this isn’t the conclusion of my reflection. Rather, it is ‘the end’, the goal, the purpose, the telos that shapes the church and makes it most distinctively Christian. Our end is to cultivate thriving communities that bear witness to the inbreaking reign of God that Jesus announces and embodies in all that we do and are. This should shape the way we think about our lives, and our churches.

In one sense, it is so obvious that it scarcely needs mentioning. The answer brings to mind the old story of a preacher inquiring during a children’s address, “What is grey, has a bushy tail and gathers acorns every autumn?” The children are silent for a few moments, then one child responds, “I’m sure the right answer is Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel to me.”

Of course the right answer to the question, “What’s Christian about the church?”, is Jesus. Centring our lives in Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, enables us to locate our lives and our church in this comprehensive story of God.

For a long time I took for granted the “why” questions about purpose: Why does the church exist, or need to exist? I was given a jolt in an ecumenical meeting when someone said “The church is here to convert Muslims”! It was a bad diagnosis of our culture, I thought. But even worse, we cannot advance the church’s mission in the world by identifying our purpose by what we are not. 

Too often as a church, we can name our activities, but we struggle tell our own story of shaping communities of faithful (if flawed) discipleship. We struggle to speak of a community engaging in the great stream of God’s story in time and space. (God’s story beyond time and space it not ours to tell.)

Many churches have learned from secular business culture to “take the long view”, but we Christians are called to develop an even longer view, a view that must incorporate the best thinking in business, psychology, history and other fields but situate it in our story as followers of Christ. The end in Christian perspective is not simply the termination of things, but rather the fulfilment of all for which we have hoped, yearned, prayed and worked.

The end is what orients our thinking about how we can honour the past as we search for the most faithful and imaginative way forward: to be a people who bear witness to the Holy Spirit who, by conforming us to Christ, is “making all things new.” The end helps us discern and clarify what needs to be preserved and what needs to be jettisoned for us to be faithful. The end enables us to be a people of traditioned innovation, envisioning the future by honouring the church’s past rather than merely ceaseless change.

Claiming the end as the heart of our story is critical for the church. For it returns us to basic questions all organizations, for-profit or otherwise, must ask. Why must we exist? What do we do that no one else can do as well? What would be lost if we disappeared?

In a time of economic tumult and unceasing reports on the decline of the mainline churches, we are prone to constrain our perspective by focusing on short-term questions of survival, that is understandable. However, especially in times of tumult, that we most need is to return to our fundamental commitments and focus on the end, a fulfilment of all that is and has been. After all, it might give us a new beginning.

Grace and peace, Alan.

Seven last words from Christ on the Cross – Revd Stephen Froggatt

The Seven Last Words from the Cross

A Good Friday Sequence of Devotions and Music

‘O Sacred Head Sore Wounded’ – violin soloThe First Word ‘Forgiveness’

1400 Father forgive them; for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)

Father, forgive them – Even on the cross, Jesus continues to teach and to set the perfect example of love. Father forgive them – Jesus repeats the words from the Lord’s prayer even with his last and anguished breath. Father, forgive them – Grace and mercy are to be shown even to those who crucified the Saviour.

In the Old Testament, the understanding of sin was such that it was a weight taken on by the wrongdoer, until released from it by the forgiveness of the offended party. We can appreciate this more if we understand our sin as a burden too great to bear, making us unable to function properly under the heavy load.

With this in mind, we can re-read Jesus’ words in Matthew 11,

Come unto me, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

We start to understand the idea that Jesus willingly takes our sins upon him, and carries them as a great burden to the cross. As the cross becomes a metaphor for our sins, we observe that the weight of the cross is so great that Jesus stumbles and falls as he carries it. Yet still he carries on, picking himself up and once more shouldering the great weight of the cross for us.

Now we are ready to read those prophetic words in Isaiah 53,

Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.

When we gaze at Christ on the cross, we need an understanding of Christ taking upon himself the sins of the world – ours too – and that this burden is willingly borne on his shoulders. As Graham Kendrick so poetically writes,

My heavy load he chose to bear.

Now return to the Lord’s prayer, and in particular these words,

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

Jesus’ core teaching is so perfectly wrapped up in this great prayer, and these lines go right to the heart of it.

As Jesus prays for the forgiveness of those who sin against him by crucifying him, so implicitly is he praying for God to forgive the sins he is carrying himself – the burden of sin that is rightly ours.

We hear the words of Jesus on the cross, confident that his own prayer was answered, and then we realise that in doing so our own sins are forgiven as well.

In these words then, our first Word From The Cross in our sequence, we call to mind both the Old Testament understanding of the burden of sin, and the New Testament understanding of forgiveness being a reciprocal understanding as seen in the Lord’s Prayer. These aren’t the only pictures that we could call to mind, however.

A more challenging concept is the idea of sacrifice for forgiveness, particularly if we try to hold such a sacrifice tightly within our Trinitarian understanding of God. Surely, God sending himself to sacrifice himself to himself to save us from himself is a bit much for any logical person! We can easily tie ourselves into knots.

The well-known atheist Richard Dawkins complains in these words,

The idea that God could only forgive our sins by having his son tortured to death as a scapegoat is surely, from an objective point of view, a deeply unpleasant idea. If God wanted to forgive us our sins, why didn’t he just forgive them? Why did he have to have his son tortured?

I find the response more satisfying in the context not of torture but of self-giving; not of sacrifice but of forgiveness: as Jesus prays for the forgiveness of his executioners, so the burden of our sins is also forgiven. In other words, I would respond to Dawkins that God DOES forgive our sins, and we are called to forgive others in the same way.

Finally in this Word, Jesus says ‘They do not know what they are doing’. Not knowing and not seeing are synonymous, especially in the Gospels. These people cannot see. Jesus has wept over their blindness on the way to Jerusalem. One of the core focuses of Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4, was helping the blind to see:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lords favour.”

Jesus’ prayer, then, is not only that his executioners be forgiven, but also that their eyes be opened to God’s mercy, grace and love.The Second Word ‘Salvation’

1405 Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)

There is no punctuation in the Greek New Testament from which our Gospels are translated. However, the placement of a comma in this verse has unfortunately caused a great deal of unnecessary controversy. We are familiar with the traditional rendition, but the original could also be translated like this:

Truly, truly I say to you today: you will be with me in paradise.

So which is correct? Is there a way to understand the text such that yet another meaning can be found? Or can we attempt the unthinkable, and suggest that all meanings are consistent?

As it turns out, it’s the latter. The hinge is our limited understanding of ‘paradise’, and indeed our limited understanding of ‘today’, strange though that sounds.

Before we begin, let us look at the context of this Word from the cross. The thieves on either side of Jesus, crucified with him, are traditionally named as Gestas and Dismas (from apocryphal texts not included in the Bible). Gestas was on Jesus’ left and Dismas was on Jesus’ right. Gestas was the one who kept jeering at Jesus, while Dismas was the one who repeatedly called on Jesus to remember him when Jesus came as King. It was to Dismas that Jesus spoke these words.

Already our mind is making connections to Matthew 25, with the sheep on Jesus’ right hand side being commended for their unknowing acts of love and mercy to strangers, and the goats on Jesus’ left being condemned for the selfishness and greed. Dismas was on Jesus’ right hand side, as were those sheep.

Remember that every word in every Gospel was written not as it happened, but long after the Resurrection. Each writer assembled his material to suit his audience and the emphases he wished to make. Thus Luke writes these words to Dismas at the end of his Gospel, no doubt with other important words of Jesus still in his mind. The last time Luke uses the word ‘today’ is here in Luke 23. The first time he uses the same word, it is in Luke 4, the Jesus manifesto mentioned earlier:

Then he began to say to them, Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Today, then, is the new ongoing present. It is the timeless new day of the Kingdom of God. The writer to the Hebrews hinted at this in Chapter 13,

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Similarly, Paul, writing to the Corinthians, put it like this:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

2 Corinthians 5:17 (NRSV)

The New Testament Scholar Tom Wright draws our attention to the significance of the garden of that early Easter morning. Christ the second Adam has defeated death and God’s re-creation of the world is announced. The ladies rushing to the tomb at dawn have become the second Eve. The garden itself is the new Eden – the new paradise garden, but this time all humankind are invited to live together in love and harmony, literally a heaven on earth.

This paradise is what we understand by the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. When God reigns, every day is part of that same new timeless present.

So when Jesus reassures the penitent thief with these words of paradise, we can hear the same words for ourselves.

Interlude – Poor Clare Sisters of Arundel (‘In Paradisum’) 1:40

The Third Word ‘Relationship’

1415 Woman, behold thy son! (John 19:26-27)

Our modern ears jar slightly when we hear Jesus addressing his own mother as ‘Woman’, both here and back in that first miracle at the wedding at Cana,

Woman, my hour is not yet come. 

Yet this was an endearing form of address at the time, and so we need to hear the love in this word. With these words from the cross, Jesus is caring for his own mother and preparing her for his death.

‘Woman, behold your son’ to his mother, then ‘Behold your mother’ to the beloved disciple, who was commonly thought to be John, the author of the Gospel.

Then suddenly we realise that a contract has been spoken. A reciprocal covenant has been made. These words are binding and legal – just as binding and legal as any marriage vows:

I, the man, take you to be my wife…

I, the woman, take you to be my husband…

The words of contract have been spoken, and these words have been spoken in the presence of witnesses. From this moment on, Mary is John’s mother and John is Mary’s son. Jesus has given his mother a son to replace him after his own death, to look after her and care for her. Jesus has similarly given John a mother to love him and care for him in the devastating moments after Jesus’ death.

If a Christian community is known by its kindness to each other then it has understood what these words from the cross are all about. The word ‘kindness’ has at its root the word ‘kin’, meaning family. Mary and the Beloved Disciple are now legally a family unit. A Christian church community which embodies that same family-ness, or kin-dness, is declaring that the members are related as Brother and Sister. All monastic communities know this through the monks’ references to each other as Brother. Similarly in the Convents, the Nuns refer to each other as Sister. Very often, the vows pronounced on full entrance to that community mark the adoption of a new name. My name may be Stephen now, but if I entered a monastic community, I might take on the new name Brother James or Brother Thomas. In the same way Jorge Mario Bergoglio took on the new name Brother Francis – when he became the current Pope.

For most of us, it is our Baptism which marks our new identity into the family of God. At our baptism we are born again into God’s family, with God himself as our Father. What’s more, it is God in love who declares us to be co-heirs with Christ, for we too are children of God.The Fourth Word ‘Abandonment’

1420 Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34)

Much of the crucifixion narrative is set out to embody the words of Psalm 22 from which this quote is taken.

Psalm 22 is a lament. This heart-wrenching cry of desolation is its opening line. Jesus frequently quoted the Psalms and would have known them by heart as did all Rabbis from his time. However, this time Jesus is doing more than quoting Psalm 22 – he is claiming it as his own.

The laments were particularly used in situations where the author felt that God was remote. Perhaps the enemy seemed to be gaining the upper hand, or perhaps in the depths of a depressive episode, the Psalmist felt so down that he couldn’t even sense God’s presence within him.

Here Jesus is crying out these words because after years of regularly praying to the Father, even in the bitter tear-soaked prayer of Gethsemane, now Jesus feels like that connection has gone.

Some suggest that it was at this point that Jesus became fully aware of the burden of the sin he was carrying. Perhaps it was at this point that he felt himself to be most vulnerably human. I can’t accept the simplistic idea that God somehow ‘looked away’ or ‘turned his face aside’ – I prefer Moltmann’s understanding that God himself was suffering there. As he writes,

When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God.

We start to understand this when we read in Philippians 2 that Jesus

emptied himself, .. becoming obedient to death, even death on the cross.

So did Jesus empty himself of all that was God in order to become fully human, or did he empty himself of all that was human in order to be fully God, dying for us on the cross? Perhaps there is no simple answer, but rather that we have to work hard with our theology if is to be deep enough to tackle such profound mysteries.

Putting this Fourth Word from the Cross back into its context we turn again to Psalm 22, only to find that it has already been quoted:

   But I am a worm, and not human;

scorned by others, and despised by the people.

All who see me mock at me;

they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;

Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver—

let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

The Roman soldiers and the passers-by have already been mocking Jesus. As have the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. Thirdly, the two bandits on either side of him, even though the one on his right does eventually change his tune when he recognises who Jesus is. Later we shall see that the Roman soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing, a detail specifically mentioned in the same Psalm, and a detail attested by all four Gospels. 

Significantly, in both Matthew and Mark, this Word from the cross is marked by the reference to the sky turning black. This powerfully reinforces the sense of abandonment. We are taken back to the very opening of Genesis, when the world was chaos and darkness and emptiness. We are waiting for God to speak again the words that will re-set the earth, the words of calling forth Light and Life. We know, of course, that these words will be spoken metaphorically by the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day, as the world’s new Light and Life break out of the darkness of the stone cold tomb.

Many people find an easy parallel between the overwhelming darkness and the forces of evil. Song writer Sidney Carter writes of this scene, for example,

I danced in the morning when the sky turned black

It’s hard to dance when the devil’s on your back

I find it enough to think of Jesus the Light of the World – the light that flooded into the lives of so many people living in the darkness of the margins of society; the light that brought so much hope into the darkness of people’s despair – as Jesus hangs dying on the cross, that light is darkened as Jesus is consumed by sin and death. Yet that light will shine again, and once Easter Day dawns, it can never again be extinguished.

Interlude – Paul Carr: Seven Last Words (‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’) 4:24

The Fifth Word ‘Distress’

1430 I thirst. (John 19:28)

The Bible begins and ends with the Water of Life – flowing out of the Garden of Eden, and meandering through a multitude of passages in the Old and New Testaments, until we find its true source in the new Jerusalem, the Heaven-on-Earth described in the Book of Revelation.

As Jesus cries out, I thirst, we are taken back to any one of these passages, but notably, perhaps, the cries of the wandering Israelites as they complain bitterly to Moses in Exodus 17,

But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

This is a significant choice, because God responds through Moses at Horeb, commanding Moses to strike the rock with his staff so that water might flow out and quench the thirst of the people. It takes the genius of poet George Hugh Bourne to make this parallel with Jesus on the cross, in his hymn Lord Enthroned in Heavenly Splendour:

5 Life-imparting, heavenly Manna,

stricken Rock with streaming side,

heaven and earth with loud hosanna

worship thee, the Lamb who died.

The stricken rock with streaming side is of course the body of Jesus, struck with the centurion’s spear after Jesus’ death, and we have John’s Gospel providing the post-mortem detail that blood and water flowed out from Jesus’ side.

Yet this was the Jesus, who in his lifetime, offered living water to all those who thirst. Referring to the provision of bread and water in the desert for the Israelites, Jesus now says,

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

And again,

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, Out of the believers heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”

When he was sitting at the well, he spoke to the woman of Samaria,

Jesus said to her, Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

This was the same Jesus, whose power over water included calming the storm and turning water into wine. Yet now, vulnerable and close to death, it is Jesus who is crying out for water, once more fulfilling the words of Psalm 22,

   I am poured out like water,

and all my bones are out of joint;

my heart is like wax;

it is melted within my breast;

my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,

and my tongue sticks to my jaws;

you lay me in the dust of death.

The distress is real. We need to remember that ‘Passion’ means suffering. These final moments are almost too harrowing to watch, as Jesus hangs on the cross, exhausted, weak, barely able to breathe and so parched he can hardly speak.

We have to avert our gaze.The Sixth Word ‘Triumph’

1435 It is finished. (John 19:30)

On some Communion tables around the world, are inscribed the words of Jesus from the Institution of the Last Supper,

This do in remembrance of me

The word order seems a little strange to our modern ears, but this is the way the line was phrased in the King James Version of Luke 22.

On other Communion tables, church furniture and even Christian tattoos, the inscription bears the single word,

Tetelestai

This is the Sixth word – ‘It is finished’. The very reason why we can gather around that Communion table in the first place.

The word itself can be translated in a variety of ways. Grammatically it implies a past action with an ongoing effect, and so can also be rendered as “Paid in full” – the word that might be stamped on a Greek hotel bill when checking out, for example. All debts paid and no outstanding balance. Free to go.

We saw earlier that the notion of sin is sometimes understood as a burden, a heavy load that must be removed by forgiveness. Another way to look at sin is as a debt which must be paid. Indeed, one version of the Lord’s prayer includes the line,

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Thus the cry of Tetelestai, or It Is Finished, is a cry of triumph that the burden of sin has been completely lifted, the debt of sin has been paid in full, and the saving, redeeming work of Jesus has therefore been completed.

Have you ever asked for the bill in a restaurant only to be told that another table has anonymously paid for your entire meal, and that they left a short while ago? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Wouldn’t it be even more amazing if you could be that person randomly paying the bill for a family of complete strangers and not even waiting to see their reaction? Unlike the watch-me-give-to-charity beloved of social media, this ticks the box for Jesus’ teaching on giving in secret. Just a thought to put out there. If you did this in Greece, you would even be presenting a family with their bill over which the word ‘Tetelestai’ – Paid in full – was used to cross it through. We can start to understand the impact of the word.

When Jesus said “It is finished” he did not mean it in the sense of exhaustion – I’m completely finished and can’t go on. He meant it in that triumphant  sense of having crossed the finishing line and won the race. This was the race that Satan never wanted Jesus to run – indeed he tried to dissuade Jesus from heading for the cross even at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he spent those long days in the wilderness. Yet even then, Jesus knew that the way to the cross was one way. He came close to doubting it all only in the depth of his Gethsemane anguish when he prayed as in this verse from Mark 14,

He said, Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

After which he knew that his work would not be accomplished until he had surrendered everything, even to the point of death on the cross.

As the old preachers used to say,

The greatest moment in human history was not when man walked on the moon, but when God walked on the earth.

At this point on the Cross, the work is now done. God as man in Jesus has accomplished all that he was born to achieve. We can even make the connection with the prophesy in Isaiah 56, remembering that according to John 1, Jesus is the very Word of God:

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

The task is finished. All is accomplished. The world can now be powered down and re-booted.

God’s re-creation is just around the corner.

Interlude – Stainer: Crucifixion (God So Loved The World) 3:37

The Seventh Word ‘Reunion’

1450 Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. (Luke 23:46)

And with these words, Jesus died. All the way to his death, even though death itself is inevitable, Jesus remains in control of his destiny, and commends his own Spirit into the hands of the Father.

The word Spirit is, of course, identical to the word Breath. Just as God breathed life into the first Adam, so the second Adam returns the divine breath to the Creator. Yet this is more than a return of the divine breath or spirit. Jesus’ words are taken from another Psalm which Jesus is quoting from the Cross – this time, Psalm 31:

Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”

Psalm 31:5 (NRSV)

Thus by saying these words, Jesus is also declaring the Father as the Redeemer, the Lord, the Faithful One. It is God who saves, and with this dying creed, Jesus returns his Spirit to God the Father from whom it came, with whom Jesus existed from the beginning of time – as Paul writes to the Colossians,

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;”

Colossians 1:15 (NRSV)

And as the Gospel of John opens,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

John 1:1–2 (NRSV)

So here, the Spirit of Jesus returns to the Father; at the Ascension, the glorified body of the resurrected Jesus returns to the Father; at Pentecost, God’s Holy Spirit is poured out on all believers. This is the flow of God’s Spirit, God’s breath, through the great story of Scripture.

Luke adds the detail that it is at this point that the veil of the temple is ripped apart. No longer is there any need for a High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies – access is now open to all. No longer is there any need for a sacrifice – Jesus himself is both High Priest and the full, final sacrifice. I could quote from Hebrews, but the whole book really develops this theme. The price is paid in full, for ever.

Wesley’s hymn ‘O Love Divine What Have You Done’ closes our final devotion today, after which we hold silence before we depart quietly when we are ready.

1 O love divine, what have you done!

The immortal God has died for me!

The Father’s co-eternal Son

bore all my sins upon the tree;

the immortal God for me has died!

My Lord, my Love is crucified.

2 O look on him, as you pass by;

the wounded Prince of life and peace!

Come, sinners, see your maker die,

and say, was ever grief like his?

Come, feel with me his blood applied;

my Lord, my Love is crucified:

3 Is crucified for me and you

to bring us rebels back to God:

believe, believe the record true,

our lives are saved by Jesu’ blood!

Pardon for all flows from his side:

my Lord, my Love is crucified.

4 Then let us stand beneath the cross,

and feel his love a healing stream,

all things for him account but loss,

and give up all our hearts to him;

of nothing think or speak beside:

my Lord, my Love is crucified.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

Music as we leave in silence

‘O Sacred Head Sore Wounded’ – violin solo